Nine years ago, a small medical marijuana dispensary opened in San Francisco's Lower Haight. The Vapor Room quickly found its place within the neighborhood and its presence had an interesting, if not counterintuitive, effect: It appears to have reduced crime.
"Before the Vapor Room moved in, the neighborhood was riddled with problems: crime, illegal drugs, loitering, graffiti," said Stephanie Tucker, a medical cannabis advocate and former aide to Christina Olauge, who represented the area on the city's Board of Supervisors. "A lot of those issues actually got better because the dispensary had security and worked with other businesses in the neighborhood to build a community."
When the Obama administration launched an aggressive crackdown on California's medical cannabis industry nearly two years ago, prosecutors cited the fear of increased crime as a motivating factor in many of their efforts to shutter marijuana-related businesses. But pot advocates argue that dispensaries actually make their neighborhoods safer.
"We're actually finding they're having a positive effect by taking up retail and industrial space that would otherwise remain vacant and become a magnet for crime," said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. "These are also businesses with a significant level of security that can deter criminals from the whole area."
Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell noted that, in addition to adding both security guards and increased foot traffic to a given area, dispensaries also reduce crime by allowing pot smokers to obtain the plant without turning to the black market.
"It's not like marijuana wasn't already being sold in these neighborhoods," said Angell. "It was being sold illegally on the street by gang members, and the cities aren't getting any tax revenue from it."
California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes when voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996. In the decade and a half that followed, medical marijuana grew into a thriving industry, generating some $100 million in annual tax revenue for the state.
All that changed, however, when Justice Department officials announced in late 2011 that they would begin targeting dispensaries throughout California in an effort to make communities safer and keep marijuana away from parks and schools.
Since their crusade began, more than 100 businesses have been forced to shut down, and hundreds more have received threatening letters. One of the earliest targets was the Vapor Room, which closed its doors for good last summer.
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, whose district includes the Bay Area, detailed her concerns about crime in an interview with KQED last March. "There is a belief, backed by facts, that marijuana operations are often times the victims of criminal activity," she said. "Armed robberies at dispensaries, armed robberies at grow operations, and people who are nearby are at risk as a result of that."
Haag then told stories of a dispensary robbed at gunpoint near a preschool in Santa Cruz and a marijuana farmer in Humboldt County who murdered one of his undocumented immigrant employees after the worker asked to be paid.
But research suggests that such anecdotes are more the exception than the rule. A 2011 study out of UCLA that examined dispensaries in the Sacramento area found that their presence in a given neighborhood wasn't associated with an uptick in crime.
"The density of medical marijuana dispensaries was not associated with violent or property crime rates," read the study, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
An analysis by the Los Angeles Police Department found that dispensaries in California's largest city weren't outsize targets for crime, either. An internal report, commissioned by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, determined that in 2009, only 47 robberies took place at the city's 800 marijuana clinics, while there were 71 robberies at Los Angeles' 350 banks that same year.
San Francisco Police Department spokesman Officer Albie Esparza told The Huffington Post that SFPD doesn't keep any official statistics relating to dispensaries and crime.
Meanwhile, questions about the nature of dispensaries' effect on crime rates have divided the city's residents.
When a medical marijuana clinic attempted to open a few years ago in San Francisco's largely residential Sunset District, it provoked a huge uproar among the store's potential neighbors, who worried about their safety.
"Nothing personal against the owner, but we don't want that type of business here," Dallas Udovich, president of the Taraval Parkside Merchants Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "People want to come to Taraval because it's safe. Well, there's a reason it's safe."
Tucker, the medical cannabis advocate, noted that this sort of reaction can be common. "Neighbors who don’t understand medical cannabis will often have a lot of fear-based complaints about crime whenever a new dispensary threatens to move in," she said.
On the other hand, Angell pointed to the large positive effect that Oaksterdam University had on its downtown Oakland surroundings before its 30,000 square foot campus was raided by federal agents last year.
After the raid, Oakland city leaders gathered outside the building to decry the federal government's actions and tout the effects that businesses like Oaksterdam have had on their surrounding communities. "We have not had crime or violence associated with our dispensaries, and that's because they've been tightly regulated,” Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan told the assembled media.
After Oaksterdam's closure, neighborhood residents and businesses flew green flags in support of the institution. The school has since relocated to a significantly smaller building nearby.
Despite the high-profile raids and closures that have targeted medical marijuana businesses across the state, a handful of new dispensaries have managed to open over the past few years -- and the owners are determined to keep their neighborhoods safe.
Stephen Rechif, the manager at the Bloom Room dispensary, which opened in San Francisco's troubled Mid-Market corridor this past January, has already seen his business have a positive influence on its surroundings.
"We have a secure storefront covered by a heavy gate at night, and there's a security guard stationed out front," he said. "Nearby businesses are happy that we're here. We're bringing in more foot traffic to the neighborhood."
Carly Schwartz contributed to this story.